Tag: Bengal cats

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

The Care and Feeding of Birds… and Novels

I put up a new birdfeeder the other day. It’s not the feeder oriented toward small birds like rosy and gold finches or chickadees. This one is solid wood, with a solid tray and a wooden roof that I inherited from my parents’ house. I decided to throw it up on my back deck as a way to get rid of some bird feed that I had had left at my house.

The first day a few little birds fluttered over from my other feeder to try it out. This carried on for a few days, but they clearly preferred my tube feeder with the chopped sunflower seed. I waited anxiously to see whether anyone would like the plain bird seed, peanuts and sunflower seeds in their shells. About three days in suddenly I had a vivid blue visitor—a cocky Stellar Jay. Not long afterwards there was a second—a youngster who kept bugging his mother to feed him even though he was perfectly capable of feeding himself. These two kept the feeder busy, taking turns feeding and teasing my Bengal cats in the process.

Two weeks later the population of Stellar Jays has doubled with four of the forward little fellows coming in to feed. They also take great pleasure in teasing the cats by hopping right up to my sliding screen doors. There are also two or three flickers that come in to feed as well as the usual mix of smaller birds. It’s kitty T.V.

The process of building a population of bird neighbors got me thinking about the care and feeding of novels—mainly because this spring and summer life has kept me from being able to write as much as I would like to. It got me thinking about how the kernel of an idea for a novel is a lot like putting out a birdfeeder.

Writing a novel requires the same faith as putting up that bird feeder, but instead of waiting for the birds, as a writer I’m waiting for the visitations of ideas. When I first put fingers to keyboards to start a new novel, it’s like hanging out the birdfeeder. There are tempting ideas there, there may even be ideas about the characters you intend to include, but the reality is something else. The core of the idea is there, but finding the other ideas that make a novel a novel is another matter altogether. After all, a bird feeder without birds isn’t much of anything at all and a novel without layers of ideas is at most a short story.

In the best of cases, new ideas come as you write. They really do seem to flutter down of their own accord, attracted by your initial idea—some even strut onstage cockily much like a Stellar Jay. The best of them you never see coming, leading to a veritable Eureka moment. The ideas that surprise the writer are my favorite kind and are usually the situations or reversals of fortunes that please readers the most, too. They are the ideas I strive to find in my stories, but in truth I think the ideas find me.

This year my creative process seems to have been dampened by dealing with too many family issues. It feels like my bird feeder is empty. And yet…

I wrote a short story the other day (good or bad, who knows) and I saw a pileated woodpecker for the first time since I moved into this home 18 months ago. My plan for this challenging time is to gradually get back into writing and to blog about the process.

And I will remember my bird feeder metaphor. If I start the novel, the big ideas will come.

Wish me luck.

Great Expectations: Cats and Readers

Great Expectations: Cats and Readers

Kayaking the west coast. (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

This past week I was supposed to be on the coast of Oregon with a group of writers learning about marketing books to bookstores. I was really looking forward to the trip and being with a group of great friends. I had everything packed and ready to be loaded into my car. My cats were primed and ready to for the trip. (They always travel with me, and the hotel where I stay at has known these boys since they were babies—it’s like a second home).

Then Ben, the larger of the two boys got sick and not just throwing up, but a total shut down. He quit eating (a VERY big thing for this guy) and drinking and became very quiet and cooperative. Now you have to know Ben. This is a cat that pulls paintings off walls and statues off shelves just to get your attention. When he took a downturn I ended up taking him to the emergency veterinarian. The next day more vets and more bills and at that point the I was still holding up hope that he might recover and I might still head to my course a day late.

Not to be.


More tests, more bills and by this point I was administering subcutaneous fluids twice a day, force feeding three times and day and wrestling pills down his throat twice a day. It’s a wonder he’s still speaking to me. How do you spell stress?

The point I’m making here is that all my expectations were dashed and so I had to totally regroup and refocus myself from a week that I had booked off from work to a week working and caring for sick cats (yes, Ben’s brother got the same bug). It was jarring. It was unpleasant not least because I had a sick cat, but also because I wasn’t doing what my mind had expected. I raise this because it brought home something important writers need to think about, which is reader expectation.

Reader expectation is what the reader is expecting to experience in a book. For instance, if J.R.R. Tolkien had written a shoot-‘em-up Science Fiction book as a follow-up to the Lord of the Rings, think about how disappointed the Lord of the Rings fan would have been when they bought the book. Same goes for the reader who picks up a book that has a cover and blurb that looks like a suspense story, but when they get reading they find it’s women’s fiction. Or the reader whose book spends an immense amount of time early on lovingly describing the gun the hero owns, but by the end of the book the gun has never been used or even appeared in the story again. Each of these authors has violated reader expectations.

Shiva trying to catch a fly in Oregon.

A few days ago I was talking with a writer friend of mine. He was bummed out because his editor at a New York publisher had turned down book two of his two book contract and my friend couldn’t understand what that had happened. In discussion with the writer he advised that book one was a lavish fantasy involving the Jewish kabala. Book two was a comedic superhero novel. Anyone see a problem here? Apparently his editor did, because the publishing house had ‘bought’ my friend as an author of lavish Jewish fantasies, but his second novel failed to deliver this in every respect. The publishing house likely turned the book down out of concern for reader expectations. Basically my writer friend was asking to his readers to give up the expectations he had created through his first book and start all over again. I suggest that readers don’t like to do this anymore than I wanted to give up my week in Oregon.

In all of these cases the author failed to meet reader expectations and as a result the reader would have as dissatisfying an experience as I have had this week. Yes, the book(s) may still have been well written. My writer friends second book was undoubtedly wonderful (he’s a great writer), but it wasn’t what the publisher was banking on the reader wanting. He should have written another Jewish fantasy. He should have written under a different name for the superhero novel. Not that all our books have to be the same, but if we want to establish a career as a writer, we need to establish a brand. We might have several brands for different kinds of books written under different  names. For instance my romance novels are under Karen L. McKee, while my fantasy/SF is written under Karen L. Abrahamson. It helps reader know what they are getting and this helps meet reader expectation.

So as writers we need to make sure that we don’t put our readers through the experience I’ve had this week. With two sick cats, I definitely didn’t get what I’d thought I bought when I booked the week off.

(and in case you were interested, the boys are both on the mend.

The boys.
The Lure of Venturing into the Unknown

The Lure of Venturing into the Unknown

Himalaya Monastery outpost (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other day I was reminded of something that seems intrinsic to human beings—the need to go where no one has gone before, to discover and map and mark our presence upon the world whether it be by having a place named after us, or by hammering a flag into a mountain top. What reminded me of this phenomenon, was the unending effort of one of my cats.

You see, in my house I have a cupboard that holds my washer and dryer. Above that cupboard is a nine-foot high display ledge that holds three large terra cotta pots and an antique Burmese carriage carving safely out of the way of the carnage of scampering little cat hooves.  My cat, Ben, has known of the shelf. In my arms when we walked past he always strained upwards like a person wishing for wings, but there was no way up.

Or so I thought. I underestimated the lure of adventure into unknown worlds, and the too-keen intelligence in my cat when it comes to reaching the Promised Land. You see, unbeknownst to me, Ben has secretly been in training.

'The boys' watching their first snowfall
'The boys' watching their first snowfall. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Over the past few years he has taken to leaping to the tops of doors and balancing. Over the past few months his training shifted to opening every bifold door in the house, including the one to the washer and dryer. Then, recently, he trained at climbing, and took it upon himself to open my linen closet, climb up the shelves and then climb out the small little ‘V’ of open space at the top of the bifold closet doors. Once there, he’d balance. Shocked the heck out of me the first time I walked in and didn’t see him until he leapt down in front of me.

I’m sure you can see where this is going.

After years of training, much like a mountain climber trains before attempting Mount Everest, or those surveyors before tackling mapping a mountain range, while I was away at Disney World, Ben tackled his adventure.

The result? One smashed terra cotta pot and a cat with a very big smile on his face.

Since I’ve been home he has shown me how he climbs his mountain. Then he sits on the ledge far above my head and meows his accomplishment—until I grab a chair and haul him down. He seems satisfied with himself and content. When I carry him past the ledge he no longer looks up at the Promised Land. After all, he’s been there, and until I can figure out how to lock the door he can get up there any time he wants

So I guess, just like the explorers of old, I’m going to have to find a way to commemorate what he’s accomplished. Guess I’ll dub his ‘Everest’  ‘Benares’ Ledge’.

And cat-proof the remaining terra cotta pots, of course.

Ben. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson



Who Are These Readers of Which You Speak? Blogging as Social Marketing

Who Are These Readers of Which You Speak? Blogging as Social Marketing

Fromages Tree, Ta Phrom, Angkor, Cambodia (2008)
Fromages Tree, Ta Phrom, Angkor, Cambodia (2008) Karen L. Abrahamson

I’m going to end this marketing series (well if something else comes up, I’ll add it later, but next week I’m going to start blogging about my writing) talking about blogging. Not that I’m an expert by any means, but blogging seemed like the kind of social marketing I could control and manage, so I’ve done regular posts since January. Those posts were about prepping for my trip to Peru, about my wild and wooly Bengal cats, about my trip to Peru and then about marketing. All of them have been fun to write and hopefully you’ve enjoyed them, too, but I wanted to spend this post talking about how blogging has worked in terms of social marketing and what I’ve learned over the past eight months.

Has blogging lead to an increase in traffic to my site? Resoundingly, yes, when I check the analytics. However whether it was the right kind of traffic, I can’t say. I’ve certainly been spammed more. I’ve also had more comments, especially during the Branding Your Book blog, and during my trip to Peru. But the latter came with pretty pictures, so I’m putting the traffic down to that and the fact that maybe people were interested in my misadventures in Peru.

I suppose any increase in traffic to your website is a good thing as long as your titles are front and centre on your website, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about who am I actually drawing to the website with my blog. I mean who are these people who come and check out what I have to say?

I can’t be sure who was reading my blog when I was prepping for Peru and when I was travelling there. Some, I know, were friends and acquaintances, or friends of friends. All good, because blogging is a social enterprise. But who has been reading my posts about marketing? I’d guess, from who made comments, most likely other writers. Are these my target audience? Well, for a marketing blog, I’d say yes. But this raises three thorny questions I guess I should have thought of way back when:

1. Why am I blogging?

2. Why do I have a website? and

3. Who do I want to read my blogs?

I’ll come clean here: I had never really given thought to having a website or blog or any other marketing matter until it became clear that, before acquiring a manuscript, New York editors were checking out new authors to see if they had an online presence. It was okay if you had a website. It was better if you had a blog and a following on twitter and facebook. With the advent of indie publishing, this presence became even more important as a means to draw people in so that they would consider your books. The website was the most important place to promote your books and writing. So my question is, if my website and blog are to promote my writing, are they attracting my intended audience of potential readers?

The answer? Maybe. Maybe a potential reader might be interested in book marketing, but I think not so much.

What might a draw a potential book reader in?

Here’s my possible list:

1. Topics of personal interest to them. A Y.A. reader of books like Twilight might be interested in blogs about teen romance. They might also be interested in books that take place in a high school, or books about loner characters because, let’s face it, we all feel alone in high school. Interest might also be there for blogs about the challenge of being strong and independent when social pressures push young people to be anything else.

2. Other topics that interest readers – Again, using Y.A. readers as an example, issues of social justice and fairness, possibly environmental issues, issues of social exclusion, dealing with boy/girl-trouble etc. This list may, or may not, be different for Fantasy readers. Blogs on characters who are loners and who have special powers. Blogs on magic systems or magical creatures might have equal appeal.

3. Topics related to your writing – While any of the above topics can be related to your novels, topics related to your writing would focus on matters that relate to how you write. For example, how you built the world you are writing in; writing about the research process and interesting information you come across; writing about your writing process and challenges.

4. Topics relating specifically to your books – this would include writing about the locales where your books take place; ideas that led to the book, or ideas that were considered and discarded; or more information about your characters.

5. Personal information – like my blogs about my cats, readers enjoy knowing more about you and what makes you tick.

So my blogs over the next while are going to focus on what I think readers might enjoy and not totally on my fellow writers. That said, I have to say one of the more inspirational blogs to me is one written by fellow author Matt Buchman who talks (inspirationally) about where he draws his inspiration from. His blogs are great reads for anyone, reader or writer.

So as a reader, what topics would you like to see blogs about? As a writer, what do you like to blog about?

Saying Goodbye – guilt and cats and manuscripts

Saying Goodbye – guilt and cats and manuscripts

There is nothing worse than having to walk out the door with two little feline faces gazing up at you with that “you’re not going to leeeeeaaaave us, are you?” look on their faces. Worse than kids, I think, because kids you can explain it to. Cats, however, they don’t get it and regardless of what anyone says, I know they pine when I’m not there.

Ben (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Ben (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

No, this isn’t me anthropomorphizing my animals. My regular cat sitter has spotted the signs numerous times. I’m their pride leader – the alpha female—and when I’m gone, they go off their food. They start tearing things up when they never would before. Or they come rushing to the door and throw themselves at my cat sitter’s feet for pats, they are so starved for human attention.

Knowing this has made it very hard to travel without them. These cats actually travel very well and I swear they like to show off on their leashes for new people. When I’m forced to leave them at home for a business trip there’s always a guilty part of me that worries that I’m a bad pet owner. And of course I miss them and their warmth on my lap, Shiva acting like a mountain lion and peering down at me from atop the cupboards, and Ben chasing his tail every morning (he has yet to catch it). All the little rituals of catdom.

I’ve realized as I’m getting ready for this trip, that saying goodbye to my cats is a lot like saying goodbye to a manuscript. (Except, thank goodness, a manuscript doesn’t pine – does it?) For this length of time away I considered a variety of cat spas for the boys and I have to say there are some very nice ones, but it doesn’t matter the quality of the care, any cat spa is not their home and they won’t have the space to run that these two little bad boys need. As a result I managed to find a live-in house sitter. Making the choice to go this route is a lot like making decisions about whether to send a manuscript out to the world, or to self-publish.

With the traditional publishing route you need to assess your work for what kind of publisher might publish it. Consider what genre it is, but also consider whether it transcends a genre. For example, there are best sellers out there that are Science Fiction, but you won’t see them shelved in a science fiction section of a book store, because they are ‘bigger ‘ than a science fiction novel. An example is Jurassic Park. Harry Potter went far beyond Fantasy and the Thornbirds (gag) went beyond romance to family saga. For my cats, I knew they were ‘bigger’ than most cats –maybe not in size, but definitely in attitude and activity level.

You need to assess your manuscript to decide what publishers to send your work to, just as I had to assess whether a cat boarding situation might serve Ben and Shiva. Then you need to research your publishers to know whether they publish your kind of work. You need to identify an editor you think might be your target audience. A helpful place for this is Publisher’s lunch, or by listening to editor presentations, or reading their blogs. Then, or course, you need to edit and package your manuscript and get it out the door. I often find that this work – the business side of writing—is the toughest part of the whole ride, and I have to specifically schedule time to do it, or it won’t get done.

Self publishing is more like what I’ve done to arrange a home stay for my cats. It all falls to you to determine your product – cover, blurbs, and how the manuscript looks – just as I had to arrange exactly what I could live with for the boys. For the cats, this involved interviews and the cat sitter spending time with the boys.

For self-publishing, this takes patience and willingness to learn a whole new skill set and when you have the manuscript ready to go, it involves a whole new level of anxiety because although you’ve presumably done due diligence to make sure you’re your manuscript is decent and clean of mistakes, you are putting the work out there without having an editor tell you it’s perfect.

So you put it out there and the first time someone comes back to you to tell you it’s not perfect, you cringe. Just like a cringe when I learn the boys were lonely when I was gone. But in both cases I did what was right. I had to go, whether for business or to refill my soul with travel, and the manuscript –whether self published or published in the traditional sense—had to go too, because we’re writers, right?

And what we write is meant to be read.

Spring path along the Yukon River (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Spring path along the Yukon River (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Routine, Flexibility and Permission (oh my)

Routine, Flexibility and Permission (oh my)

I broke routine this morning and slept in until almost seven a.m. The weird thing is, the cats broke routine, too, and let me. Usually they are right there, yelling, or pouncing on me (see here for a wonderful cartoon of the experience), or else Ben will go into the kitchen and bang cupboards or otherwise wreak destruction to get me up. After all, cat tummies are far more important than my beauty sleep.

But this morning they broke routine. Actually they’ve ‘broken’ routine for the past week or so, ever since the corner of my bedroom started to seriously collect things for my trip. Last night I actually began the task of inventorying and packing. I think I have them nervous. I think they know I’m going somewhere soon. After all, they’re far from stupid. But the simple act of letting me sleep is consistent with other behavioral changes they are showing. For example Ben actually managed to crowd onto my lap and fall asleep while I was typing yesterday afternoon, when usually he just plants himself on top of my desk and pushes everything else to the floor. He also made a point of sleeping on my lap last evening. Definitely things are up.

We all know cats have routines and heaven help us if we vary from anything that impacts their feeding, brushing or taking them for walks. (Yes, mine go for walks on leashes.)

Shiva wanting to catch a fly (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Shiva wanting to catch a fly (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

As writers we need those routines, too. For me it has always been a routine to get up at 5:30 and write for two hours before I have to turn to work. I’ve done that for the past ten years and produced about four books a year, until this January when I was ‘forced’ to give it up.

Okay, not forced. I chose to give up. There I was in the middle of manuscript revisions and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was over my head with work and preparing for this trip and had started having nightmares. So something had to give. It was a horrible choice. The guilt was enormous and so was the feeling of failure. But it was also a relief because I was hating everything I was doing because I didn’t have the time to do it well.

A friend of mine recently went through a similar experience for totally different reasons. He moved, due to a job change and then had to spend his time moving in and focusing on the new job. Time passed. He didn’t write. He blogged (here) about the challenge that posed for him because he, like myself, has been regimented about his writing and is a spectacular writer who recently sold his first four book series. His pain is that during his move he hasn’t written a word.

To me the ‘not writing’ has been a lot like what going through nicotine withdrawal must be like. I still find myself at the computer early in the morning, I know I should write (and I do—on work), but the most I’ve been able to write creatively has been these blogs. I tell myself it’s okay, but I know it’s not because it’s very easy to fall out of a habit that’s good for you and very easy to fall into a habit that’s not –like sleeping in.

On Thursday I received a phone call from the airline that is taking me to Peru. They advised that the flight times had changed and therefore I have to leave a day early and layover in Toronto overnight. Thanks goodness my schedule as a consultant is a little flexible. I was able to do it, even if it’s going to be tight for work. Be flexible, I said.

So I’ve decided that writers need to follow my cat’s lead and give themselves permission. Instead of being rigid and getting anxious about not writing, writers need to assess their situation and give themselves permission to not write. Occasionally the world intervenes, like my friend’s move, like another friend’s illness, like another friend dealing with a death in the family. I know all of them are back at the keyboard.

And I know I’m a writer, so I’ll be blogging while I’m travelling and writing when I get back from Peru. That’s promise, just as surely as I know Ben and Shiva will be back to caterwauling in the morning.

Shiva, imposing himself on thanksgiving dinner (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Shiva, imposing himself on thanksgiving dinner (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Money: Or horses are like tomatoes (and cats are, too)

Money: Or horses are like tomatoes (and cats are, too)

This blog is about money. It may be very short. Or long.

You see, money and I have a long and troubled relationship. Yes, I’m doing okay at the moment, but it hasn’t always been so good. I can recall winters of eating mostly potato soup, or venison the neighbors donated to me and my spouse. I still remember the night our ‘house’ almost burned down when the wood heater (we couldn’t afford a furnace) overheated. The house? A converted garage cum chicken coop (not kidding). So I’ve seen some good times and some bad and right now things are less bad than others so I’m doing the not-too-smart thing and running off travelling. I guess my mom didn’t teach me so good.

So what does this have to do with travel and writing? Because I’m planning out the money for my Peru trip a number of money rules have started reverberating in my mind. I thought I’d share some that relate to travel and writing.

Tibetan monks after ceremony, Labrang, China (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Tibetan monks after ceremony, Labrang, China (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

My writing mentors, Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch have some wonderful blogs about writers and money. One of their major rules that all writers should remember is that ALL MONEY FLOWS TO THE WRITER. What this means is that writers should not be paying faux publishing companies or shady agents to edit and revise the writer’s manuscript. True enough. Those scam artists who offer to publish your book if you only send them cash, are preying on new writers who don’t know that rule. But in this day of digital self-publishing a variation on the rule is, Money flows to the writer unless you are paying someone to edit your manuscript for self-publishing to ensure that you are publishing the highest quality possible. It might also mean that the writer who doesn’t want to learn how to make book covers, spends some money to have a creditable cover made for the book.  Any writer prepared to do this needs to consider how long it is going to take to recoup the dollars spent, but also consider whether their time is better spent doing what they do best – namely writing.

All well and good, but unfortunately the rule with travel is that ALL MONEY FLOWS FROM THE TRAVELER. First there was the cost of the jacket I wrote about. Then there are new hiking boots (mine just died), and then there are the things like camera memory cards etc. Those are all the sundry costs before you go.

And then there is the cost of travel. As a relatively seasoned traveler, I like to plan for costs before I leave, because I don’t like depending on plastic when I’m overseas. First of all there’s the fact plastic runs up debt. Then there’s the fact that overseas use of credit and bank cards is more prone to problems. Picture this: In Delhi I went to my bank (an international that has branches almost everywhere) and plugged my bank card into their bank machine. Said machine eats card. On a Sunday. In the afternoon. Monday I call said bank and am told that said card had been reported stolen. I ended up spending almost 24 hours phoning my branch back home to get things sorted out.

Nope, cards are great backups, and cash may be good to get the best rate in exchange, but give me a good old traveler’s check any day. American Express or Thomas Cook are my best friends when I travel and are less tempting to thieves, as well.

But budgeting for travel can be a problem. I always plan for my expected costs and then double the amount , but even that has left me high and dry a couple of times. For instance in Cambodia, two years ago we budgeted about $2,000.00 for a bit over a month. I suppose that would have been fine, except inflation had hit Cambodia and everyone wanted everything paid in American dollars. Cash. I was never so happy to get back to Thailand where the costs seemed more manageable and we could use plastic because the time in Cambodia had eaten up the money faster than I’d figured. So rule three and four: ALWAYS EXPECT TO BE OVER BUDGET and ALWAYS HAVE A CONTINGENCY.

In the same vein, expect there to be times when travelling cheap is just too painful. I recall sitting in a grotty hotel room in a town in central China after a nightmare journey down the Yangtze River. My traveling companion and I were both close to tears and the thing that held us together was the fact that the next morning we knew we had the cash to lug our backpacks down the street to the nicest hotel in town (even with a swimming pool). When you travel YOU MUST BUDGET ENOUGH MONEY TO ALLOW YOURSELF TO RECOVER. Travel is hard. Backpacker travelling is even harder and if you don’t build in a comfort buffer you will find yourself hating your trip and travel. That’s not what it’s all about.

My last rule comes to me from a previous spouse who might have never travelled but he was wise in common sense and the way of horses. He was an old cowboy and superb horseman and he told me that horses are like tomatoes: they are just as perishable and just as easily ruined. Hard to believe, I know, but a 1,500 lb equine is so darned prone to injury and illness that they can go from magnificent dressage horse to fox feed in next to no time. Illustration: A very good hunter jumper mare cast herself upside down in a ditch on my property. We got her out, but the poor thing was exhausted. Did she just stay down until she regained strength? Oh no. She fought to get to her feet – so hard she broke her leg. So I learned the hard way to insure my horses and now, believe it or not, I have medical insurance for my cats, too. It has paid off,  because Big Ben has already had far too many misadventures like shattering a toe in his carry cage.

Humans are no different. So the last thing a traveler wants to do is be caught somewhere having to shell out big bucks to cover medical costs. My parents had a lovely trip to Palm Springs end on an unfortunate note when my mom had heart troubles and ended up hospitalized. On my trip along the Silk Road an acquaintance on the bus behind ours had his arm shattered when his bus went off the road. Thus my last rule of travel is ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH MEDICAL INSURANCE. Let me leave you with my litany of past injuries and illnesses as illustration:

• Tropical ulcers in East Africa that required medical attention and frequent debriding (something you do not want to go through) and antibiotic shots for months.

• Food poisoning in West Africa that required my hotel staff to bundle me up and get me on a plane out.

• Food poisoning in Burma that (thankfully) required nothing (except a very rapid-fire rejection of the food).

• Two sprained ankles in China that made the next month and a half a nightmare ride.

• Walking pneumonia in India.

I hate to think what it would have cost if I something REALLY bad had occurred.

I guess I’d better be careful hiking the Peruvian mountains.

Big Cats and Small – Nurturing what we have

Big Cats and Small – Nurturing what we have


Male lion, Serengeti (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Male lion, Serengeti (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’m trying to write this blog with a 16 pound cat yelling in my ear and grabbing my sleeve in his teeth to get my attention. He’s an insistent, not-so-little guy who knows when he needs me and I don’t know anyone who can completely ignore him. Frankly, some people wonder how I put up with his delinquency and I know that Bengal cats are frequently turned in to the SPCA for exactly the types of behavior Ben exhibits, but Ben is just asking for what he needs – in this case a few minutes of my time for pats and belly rubs. I can react to it either by ignoring him or doing what I signed on for when I adopted him – nurturing him just as he meets my need for company.

Sometimes, when I’m extremely busy or in the heat of writing, my first inclination is to ignore him—as much as you can ignore a 16 lb cat gnawing on your sleeve – but lately I’ve come to accept this is part of having this wonderful companion and that the best I can do is nurture him, just as I need to nurture myself as a writer.

For me, nurturing does not come natural. I once described myself as having been AWOL when they handed out the Florence Nightingale gene. I’m regimented in my life and always seem to put the hard work first, before I get to the things that nurture my soul, and giving cats attention. Thus, at this moment, I’m so swamped it feels like having a life just comes second. Of course, my life is what I’m using up while I’m consumed with work. Somehow I forget to take care of the little things – like spending five minutes of play with each of my cats. So little and yet it has such wonderful pay-off. There is just nothing like thick fur and a purring, ecstatic kitty-face to make me smile and relax from the rat race.

So as writers we need to give ourselves time off. We need to do things like stop to listen to the first birds of spring, read good books and go for walks alone or with friends, or just have a bubble bath – whatever makes you feel whole again. Nurturing yourself as a writer also means giving yourself a chance to celebrate what you have. The skills you’ve gained as a writer, and the determination to keep writing – or the fact that you’ve started or finished a short story, a novel, whatever you’ve written—should be celebrated. Writers shouldn’t let defeat and negativity make them blind to those assets and accomplishments.

This is a lot like recognizing the wonderfulness of the two little demons I cohabit with. They forgive me when I ignore them and are so thrilled when I pay attention.

There is something wonderful about cats, whether a placid housecat or the great wild cats. They both have something mystical about them. Or maybe it’s mythic, except there is such an element of the clown in most cats. I’ve never seen a tiger in the wild, and I likely never will given the decline of their population. But I have been fortunate enough to see a mother cheetah teach her youngsters to hunt and have watched their playful lounging after they gorged. I’ve seen elusive leopards hang limp in a tree after gorging on a gazelle that must have outweighed them. And I’ve seen lions – prides of them – sprawled on a sunny kopje in the Serengeti, and playing silly games in the game parks of Botswana. I remember one young female who thought it was fun to push over a small tree. Every time she did, it smacked another lioness in the face, and I swear the youngster knew exactly what she was doing. A lot like Ben knows what he’s doing when he takes a swipe at one of my pictures and sends it sliding.

Yup. Got my attention, little man.

I read a sad article in the Vancouver Sun newspaper the other day. It was about African lions and how they may disappear from the wild within 10 years. Their numbers have fallen from about 150,000 in the wild ten years ago to about 20,000 total today. IN ALL OF AFRICA. The article went on to say that once the numbers of a species fall below a certain level the race to extinction accelerates. I was so shaken by the article I couldn’t even read it all the way to the end in one sitting. A world with no lions? I couldn’t imagine it; or I could, and it broke my heart.

The article went on to talk about how a few National Geographic researchers and the Botswana government are working to try to bring them back in that country. Nurturing. And it made me realize that lack of nurturing is a huge problem in our world. From our children, to the oceans, to the jungles, to other cultures, to ourselves, to my cats – we are failing our world because, at least in the west, we’ve become far too focused on work and our own personal challenge to just get through it, to the point where we don’t appreciate the gifts around us.

I feel so fortunate to have heard the grunt-grumble roar of a lion and to have seen the magnificent sprint of cheetahs. To have smelled the dusty cat-scent of a lion as it nosed the side of the jeep I was in, and to have looked into its amber eyes. There was something there: intelligence, but different than a person’s. Something wild and foolish and wonderful that I see mimicked in Ben and Shiva’s gaze. And we’re at risk of losing the great cats unless we take the time to nurture the other inhabitants of this world.

So I’m going to step away from my desk and write a check to the National Geographic Society. I’m going to find out what I can do locally to help the environment.

But before that, I’m going to go pat my cats.

Ben (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Creative Energy – Fatigue and Being Fit Enough

Creative Energy – Fatigue and Being Fit Enough

Living with two Bengal cats, I’m astounded by their boundless energy. These are two year old cats. They should be getting more sedentary, but I swear a hamster wheel would do them both good. The galloping of paws on my hardwood floors, and the boundless, easy leaps up to ceiling-high windows is enough to exhaust me after a day of work. I think cats keep a perfect writer’s schedule. They work when they want. They play when they want. They sleep when they want. And when they know they’re in trouble they can vanish like the wind before you can do anything about it, leaving you to deal with the aftermath. I wish I had their energy. Of course I also know cats who only get up for a trip to their food dish, and whose ankles groan every time they leap down from the couch.

Which is a lot like what can happen to writers when they’re not fit enough. 

Leaping cats of Inle Lake, Burma (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Keeping fit provides the energy to do amazing things like teach a cat to do tricks like the amazing temple cats of Inle Lake, Burma (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

It might not be leaping tall buildings, but writing is far more arduous than most people think. Physical ailments abound amidst writers: Carpal tunnel syndrome; bad backs; stiff necks and shoulders; not to mention the issue of midriff spare tires. All of which means that writers need to take care of themselves.

I’m a perfect example of someone who hasn’t always done so. I had my desk set up with the computer screen slightly off centre and ended up throwing out my back. I was immobilized with pain for six months (still writing using voice recognition software – now that was hilarious) before the Canadian Health Care system took pity and gave me a disc-ectomy. Thankfully the pain went away.

l spent a week at a writing retreat and turned out 50-70 pages a day. The result was carpal tunnel so badly that numbness ran from my hands right up to my biceps for about a week. Even now, three years later, typing any more than about 20 pages touches off the problems again.

Both of these issues were things I could have foreseen and both were issues I could have guarded against, but that’s the problem. Unless you are doing this a lot, many people don’t understand just how unnatural sitting in a chair is, and just how much repetitive stress our hands are under when we type.

So what do we need to do to keep going?

As professional writers, or even serious beginning writers, we first of all need to treat ourselves and our art seriously. To do this work we need the tools to do it. One things we can do is to set up our writing space properly, seated facing straight ahead, feet flat on the floor, with appropriate supports for our hands/wrists/arms and bac. Writers need to try out ergonomic keyboards, raised screens (that are directly in front of them), and appropriate chairs. Some people wear wrist supports, or small balls in their palms that help keep their hands in ergonomic positions. Remember, if you are aching when you are writing, or after you’ve written, something is wrong. You have to fix it if you are going to write long term.

The second action writers have to take is exactly that—action. Writers who believe that their only responsibility is to keep writing are mistaken. Yes, you need to keep writing, but you also need to keep fit to do it. As I said, sitting places stress on the body, and the fact that writing is sedentary means that old spare tire can easily seep in around our middles. The more weight you put on, the easier it is to remain sedentary. You’re more tired carrying that weight around. And so you don’t exercise and so you gain more weight.

This vicious cycle is one of the banes of my existence. As someone who still has to support themselves through a day job, the issue is exacerbated by the fatigue from the job that discourages those trips to the gym. The only defense a writer has is to take action. Drink water to keep hydrated while you write and that will, at least, force you out of your chair. Do isometric exercises at your desk or while you’re up taking care of that water. Best of all, take breaks and go out for a walk, a run, to the gym, kayak, play tennis, swim. Anything that will get your heart rate going.

This sort of activity not only gives your heart a workout, it also gets the endorphins pumping. You’ll find you are less tired and have more energy to devote to the writing—something a professional or the serious beginner needs to have.

If you can’t find the time for regular exercise, then try something like setting your writing space somewhere you have to walk up or down stairs to reach both the kitchen and bathroom. Then drink that water.

Or you can do things like I do to get myself fit: I set goals to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Or work up a sweat chasing after a couple of hoodlum cats that have just swiped my pen from the desk.

Voice: Kitchen Cupboards, Gleaming Mountains, and a Peeled Pommelo

Voice: Kitchen Cupboards, Gleaming Mountains, and a Peeled Pommelo

For all that Ben and Shiva are full brothers, they are very different cats with very different voices. Shiva, though much smaller, has the loud Siamese yowl that can shatter sleep like a siren. He’s a skitter-bug cat that loves to play and will make a toy out of anything he can get his little Velcro paws on. His favorite playtime is diving under the pillows on my bed and waiting, like a jaguar, for something to move so he can attack. He also likes to sit on top of the kitchen cupboards peering down like a vulture.

Sweet and evil (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Sweet and evil (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Ben, on the other hand, is much quieter, with mews more like muttering to himself, but there are dark waters swirling in that cat. This week the challenge has been that he has figured out how to open upper kitchen cupboards – in particular the one above the fridge that holds the wine glasses (maybe he’s developed a taste for the vino?). He’ll throw anything off the fridge that I put up to block him. The scary thing is I actually know when he figured out how to do it. I saw him watching me as I was getting something out of the cupboard and the spark of idea absolutely flashed in his eyes.

While both of these cats have watched me open cupboards numerous times, both of them (and me) come from different perspectives. Shiva comes from the perspective of “that’s interesting that she can do that”, while Ben comes from the place of “If she can do that, so can I – and no one can stop me”. One comes from the place of a gentle, clowning soul, while the other is just, well, evil? Me, I just want my wine glasses safe in the cupboards, all of which illustrates the underlying concept of character voice – different perspectives regarding our environment.

This is different from a writer’s voice. A writer’s voice comes through as style. A writer’s style may grow and change, but you can tell a Stephen King no matter when he wrote it, or under what name. Same goes for a James Lee Burke. There’s a certain attention to detail that comes through no matter what he writes.

But character voice can be the bane of new writers. What is it? How does it work? What’s all the fuss about when I can write a beautiful descriptive scene, or a terrific action sequence?

Character voice ilustrates the different world view each character possesses, just as Ben and Shiva and I each have different perspectives about my kitchen cupboards. I’ll share with you two different stories from my travels that illustrate how two people can live through exactly the same thing and have totally different experiences.

I lived in Thailand for a while and while I was there I travelled around with a wonderful Thai friend named Nin. Now, one of my favorite Thai delights was the large citrus fruit called pommelo. For anyone who hasn’t tried them, they are like a grapefruit only much larger, drier, and sweeter, and their rind is about an inch thick. As a result they are delicious, but incredibly labor intensive to peel.

So Nin and I were driving with her fiancée and we stopped and bought a pommelo and she began to peel it for me. Not that I was in any way incapable of peeling the darn thing myself. She not only peeled the rind, she then carefully performed delicate surgery on each segment to release the luscious flesh from its skin. Then she passed each delicious piece to me or her husband-to-be.

Now that I think back on it, it was one of the most beautiful examples of the Thai ethic of total focus on performing each action perfectly in order to provide pleasure to others. At the time, however, I was embarrassed. I thought she didn’t think I was capable of peeling a pommelo, and I felt uncomfortable having her serve me when I could have peeling the fruit myself. Yet to Nin this was just being the lovely woman that she was, and gifting a friend with something she loved. Two different people experiencing the same thing, but coming from different cultures, our understanding of the event meant something dramatically different.

What draws the eye: Little girl in Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
What draws the eye: Little girl in Kashgar, (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The other example took place along the Silk Road in western China. My friend and I were smashed side by side on an interminable bus ride across the Taklamakan desert and far in the distance across an eternally flat land, I saw a bluff gleaming in the low angled sunlight. I watched it change iridescent pinks, blues and mauves as the light fell in the late afternoon, so I hauled out my notebook and waxed on and on about the wonder of beauty in the midst of all that desolation. When I finished with my eloquence, I turned to my friend, a fellow Canuck and mathematician, and pointed out the mountain and prepared to launch into my ode to beauty. What did she say when I pointed out the mountain?

“Sure. It’s chalk.”

A perfect example of how different our minds worked. And that’s character voice. While I waxed poetry in my journal she was busy examining the visual data to determine the geological makeup of that mountain. The jar of the dissonance in our experiences shut me down – until I burst out laughing.

If only I could shut Ben down so easily.

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